The United States holds the world’s largest prison population, but just how deep does our nation’s system of punishment and containment run? In the June 2015 issue of the Journal of American History, which is freely available online, historians examine the origins and consequences of America’s carceral state. These articles discuss how mass incarceration’s effects seep into all facets of American society—economic, political, legal, and social. Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), delves into such perspectives through a series of posts by authors from this special issue.
“Flocatex and the fiscal limits of mass incarceration” by Alex Lichtenstein
Parallels in punishment between the South’s postbellum and post-civil rights eras
In his article, Alex Lichtenstein draws parallels between punishment in the South’s post-Reconstruction era and post-civil rights era. The New South used a brutal penal system, including chain gangs and convict leasing, to establish economic control and racial dominance. Lichtenstein explores similar trends of radicalized punishment in modern-day “Flocatex” (a combination of Florida, California, Texas). These states are considered “innovators” in a sprawling carceral state. Florida demonstrates a growing reliance on private prison contractors to increase capacity at low costs. California shows a shift from therapeutic punishment to retributive punishment. In Texas, an increase in the infrastructure of punishment has created a new carceral landscape and economy. What can the “peculiar regional political economy” of the post-Reconstruction South teach us about disturbing new trends in the criminal justice system?
“Objects of Police History” by Micol Seigel
Confronting popular conceptions of “the boys in blue”
Imagine your average local cop: on the beat, dressed in blue, patrolling local neighborhoods, armed only with a walkie-talkie and a revolver. Micol Seigel confronts this image in her article, “Objects of Police History,” which explores the life and death of a federal agency, the Office of Public Safety (OPS). Established by John F. Kennedy in 1962, OPS sent American officers abroad to Cold War hotspots to instruct foreign police on “professional methods.” Their tactics were often violent and politicized, blurring the lines between civil servants and militarized officers. OPS globalized the US police, creating lasting trends of counterinsurgency, militarization, and privatization. Our quaint concept of local cops may no longer be valid, as Seigel points out that America’s police now “regularly leap territorial borders, blend civilian and military features, and serve private interests.”
“Less Crime, More Punishment” by Jeffrey S. Adler
The crime and punishment paradox in America’s interwar period
Jeffrey Adler examines a “curious, counter-intuitive relationship” in America’s legal system between World War I and World War II. For the first quarter of the twentieth century, America’s violent crime rates skyrocketed while incarceration rates remained low. Then something changed. Between 1925 and 1940, crime and punishment began to move in paradoxically opposite directions. Adler focuses on Chicago and New Orleans, where plunging crime rates met markedly rising incarceration rates. During the course of this “war on crime,” law enforcement began to disproportionately target African Americans, causing an exploding African American prison population and—as Adler argues—foreshadowing our current carceral state.
“Queer Law and Order” by Timothy Stewart-Winter
The gay community and the fight against police harassment
“What happens if we view the history of the lesbian and gay rights movement in terms of its relationship to the criminal justice system?” Timothy Stewart-Winter addresses this question in his article, “Queer Law and Order,” which traces the history of sexuality alongside the emergence of the carceral state. The gay community struggled with police harassment in the 1960s and 1970s with routine police raids on gay bars. Patrons of these bars—mainly white, middle-class men—sought liberal allies. They aligned themselves with the African American community and other minority groups fighting against harsh policing tactics. Getting police out of gay bars was an important milestone, but Stewart-Winter says that the victory caused a shift in priorities away from battling police brutality, and fellow minority groups lost an important ally.
Image Credit: “Prison” by Barbara Rosner. Public Domain via Pixabay.